Sunday, November 03, 2013

Three examples of telling a personal story successfully

I like to write, and I write this blog to be read by others. I also like to read good writing. It gives me intense pleasure, but it is also a learning tool. I think telling a personal story can be a really good way for a writer to communicate with readers. I’m giving examples today from three writers I think tell their personal stories well.

David Sedaris is a well-known author, essayist and humorist, who has made his way to the top of the best-seller lists and is also in demand as a speaker, reading from his own work. That would be the apex of the profession.

His latest essay in The New Yorker for October 28, 2013, is nostalgic, funny and tragic. “Now We Are Five” is a story about Sedaris’ large family, their yearly beach vacation, and the sister who killed herself. We are grabbed right away by Sedaris’ opening lines:
“In late May of this year, a few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide. She was living in a room in a beat-up house on the hard side of Somerville, Massachusetts, and had been dead, the coroner guessed, for at least five days before her door was battered down.”
From that point Sedaris introduces himself into the narrative, and then goes into a long story, interweaving himself, his parents and his five siblings and their years together at the beach, all while telling of the most current beach vacation, where they had their annual vacation with their 90-year-old father. Tiffany, the suicide, figures in as part of the overall story, and in Sedaris’ way, in a memory by a non-family member that ends in a punchline:
“The day before we arrived at the beach, Tiffany’s obituary ran in the Raleigh News & Observer. It was submitted by Gretchen, who stated that our sister had passed away peacefully at her home. This made it sound as if she were very old, and had a house. But what else could you do? People were leaving responses on the paper’s Web site, and one fellow wrote that Tiffany used to come into the video store where he worked in Somerville. When his glasses broke, she offered him a pair she had found while foraging for art supplies in somebody’s trash can. He said that she also gave him a Playboy magazine from the nineteen-sixties that included a photo-spread titled “The Ass Menagerie.”
Sedaris has many fans. I am an admirer of his writing. He makes everything about his life interesting, and I highly recommend his books. You can read the essay I have quoted from at the New Yorker website.

Eddie Hunter is a great storyteller. He has a blog, Chicken Fat. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, and he writes often about his hometown. I met him through the old Prodigy bulletin boards circa 1993 and through his posts immediately recognized him as a keen observer of human nature. Eddie is what I’d call a “first draft” author; he writes it and posts it. I have told him with a good editor he could be another humorist in the Southern tradition of Lewis Grizzard. Eddie’s blog is a grab-bag of cartoons, comics, jokes, observations and anecdotes like this very funny story he tells of himself as a young sailor in the early 1960s. (I have taken the liberty of some slight editing, but nothing to take away from Eddie’s style.)
“At one of the many neighborhood bars between where I was stationed, NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Lakewood, New Jersey, one time returning from the movie theater in Lakewood I dropped in a "Dew-Drop-Inn" kind of joint.  Back in the mid 60s the bars and lounges had video jukeboxes. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer.  Next to me was a middle-aged lady quietly weeping.  I looked at her and might have asked her was she OK.  She told me it was her and her husband's 25th wedding anniversary.  He was a chicken farmer and would not dance with her.  He resented having to take the time off from the farm to take out to celebrate.  He sat beside her, looking straight ahead, listening to ever word we said, and occasionally glanced at the person talking.  Finally, I leaned over to him, and saying in a joking manner to ‘Come on, dance with your pretty wife.’

He turned around and glared at me and said, ‘You dance with her, Butterball!’

I laughed like he pulled a good one, and said, ‘Oh no, I'm not the dancing type.... ha ha!’ ’

He stood up to show me his enormous size, pushed his ball cap back to get a better glare on me, and said, ‘Dance, Butterball! Dance!’

I looked at my watch and said I had to run.

I hit the parking lot running. 

My lesson for that day was not to meddle in other people's business.”
Not only is Eddie an observer of human behavior, he can tell a funny story about himself. It is what your English teacher always told you: “Write what you know.”

Eddie (left) and former Mad editor Albert Feldstein. Like me, Eddie was raised on Mad.

Pervocracy is another blog I follow, if only because I find the idea of BDSM foreign. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying sex while being tortured, but apparently, as I have read in this blog, it is a way of life.

From a posting calling “The Sexcalator,” the female author opens with two startling paragraphs :
“By the time I was out of my early twenties, I'd done some fairly hardcore BDSM.  I'd been beaten, whipped, cut, bound, shocked, peed on, done most of the above naked in front of strangers, and frequently during sex.  Which raises the question--where do you go from there? When you're so young, and you've already had such intense experiences, what's left?

Cuddling on the couch, for one.  Or having slow sleepy sex at the end of the day.  Or — not to make this sound like ‘but then I discovered that sweet gentle love was the most daring of all!’ — getting beaten some more, not necessarily in a harder or more shocking way than before.”
She isn’t asking us to accept her sexual interests as moral or immoral. She is telling us what she has done, not asking for approval. It is what it is, she is saying. This is confessional writing, but it also is a look inside the mind of someone who may be doing something we have only heard of, but never done.

In that way I find her story not only titillating, but well written. It instantly portrays to me what she finds sexually exciting, and that is the goal of any good writer: to get the readers immersed instantly, and keep them interested until the point is made and the story reaches its end.

Bettie Page being bad? Or just having some good, sexy fun?

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